Legislation that protects the environment can have a negative effect on societies, limiting people from accessing energy, especially in developing countries. Maintaining a fair balance between the treatment of people and the environment thus requires careful consideration of energy management, as this is the only way to avoid energy inequality.

Nowadays, we have access to unbelievable amounts of information. Sometimes, it can be overwhelming to constantly read and hear about unfortunate events happening in one’s home country and elsewhere in the world. Although this can be exhausting, it is also true that many of the issues people face today are closely related to each other.

Many developing countries, for example, have high poverty rates; where poverty exists, access to energy is usually low. This, in turn, can impact a whole other range of factors, from health care and economic growth to education and employment. 

Energy use and its management have a direct impact on both the environment and human wellbeing. But what exactly do we mean by energy inequality and how is this phenomenon connected to poverty and environmental health?

What Is Energy Inequality?

Energy inequality refers to the individual access to energy. Basic human needs include food, water, and shelter – all aspects that are directly impacted by an individual’s access to energy. Although some people can access an abundance of energy, others struggle to survive because their supply is so meagre.

At its core, energy is the power required to do work. With their bodies, humans have the ability to expend energy and get work done. However, much more can be done much faster with the help of external energy like electricity. This can be generated in a number of ways, for example through solar panels, fossil fuel plants, and nuclear fission.

People use energy every day to accomplish both necessary and creative tasks. Daily activities such as cooking require energy – whether it is for cooking over a fire or using an electric oven. Moreover, every item in your home was probably manufactured through the use of energy, from a piece of fabric to furniture.

Energy, however, impacts individuals beyond survival and material objects. It also fuels education. Schoolchildren worldwide, for example, utilise buses, school supplies, and electronic devices to learn. Energy is thus a resource that unlocks opportunities and can boost personal and economic growth. Thus, access to it is closely tied to prosperity in the modern world.

In 2019, 759 million people did not have access to electricity, while others have been impacted by the 113% increase in weather-related outages throughout parts of the US, such as residents of Texas, one of the US states most vulnerable to climate change. Power shortages prevented them from cooking as well as using washing machines, electronics, and even heating systems, sometimes for days. 

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How Energy Inequality Impacts Climate Change

In natural ecosystems, energy recycles back into the earth. Unfortunately, many human-made sources of energy disrupt this balance and lead to pollution. For example, consider the difference between burning a tree and letting it biodegrade. Fallen trees naturally lock carbon into the ground, while burning wood sends carbon and other particles into the atmosphere.

Some forms of energy are more environmentally friendly than others. Burning fossil fuels, for example, reduces the planet’s resources and releases toxic particles into the air. Greenhouse gas emissions are heating up the planet, affecting weather patterns, and decreasing food stability around the world.

Because modern manufacturing has become dependent on external energy, it is not feasible to completely shut down production until clean, renewable sources of energy can be developed on a large scale. Fortunately, engineers and environmentalists are working incessantly to develop ways for people to access energy without damaging the environment.

For example, solar panels harness the sun’s energy to power electric devices like refrigerators and washing machines. While panels require mining precious minerals, but they do not cause air pollution while in use. Manufacturers are hopeful that the minerals in panels will be eventually fully recyclable, a step that would drastically reduce their already very limited environmental impact.

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When it comes to adding emissions to the atmosphere, there is no doubt that not all countries pollute in the same ways and to the same extent. This has to do with the scale of production and the type of energy these countries use. Many families in Africa, for example, use fossil fuels as their primary source of energy for cooking, and yet the continent’s total environmental impact is much lower than that of industrialised nations like China and the United States, which are responsible for the release of immense quantities of emissions into the atmosphere every day, as their economies are significantly larger and thus produce much more.

Mitigating Energy Inequality

Dealing with energy is often a double-edged sword for policymakers. On the one hand, environmentalists want to restrict certain types of energy sources that negatively impact the environment. On the other hand, civil rights activists demand easy access to cheap energy so that people can climb out of poverty.

This debate crosses class boundaries to involve the rich, too. Some people believe the wealthy should pay heavy taxes on travel and other activities that burn fossil fuels. However, it is also wealth that empowers industrialised nations to invest in the development of eco-friendly energy – as the transition to sustainable and green energy is often costly.

Like all civics matters, this discussion boils down to a conversation about ethics and climate justice. For a low-income family living in Asia, burning fossil fuels for warmth may be more ethically acceptable than a wealthy family using fossil fuels to fly to Europe every couple of months for vacation. However, who is to say what kind of energy use is morally acceptable?

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To address this inequality, policymakers in countries such as Canada propose targeted taxation on luxury activities like cruises that burn fossil fuels. Others, however, believe that less legislation will lead to organic change over time. For example, wealthy people have the resources to invest in the energy infrastructures of developing countries. Again, who should be the arbiter of who gets taxed and where the money goes?

Instead of doubling down on comparison, focusing on generosity may be more productive. If every person acted having the best interest of others in mind, energy inequality would soon become a matter of the past and so would likely also poverty and environmental harm.

Until then, policymakers must walk the fine line between the opportunity that energy can bring and the environmental damage it can cause.

Navigating the Future

Energy access, environmental health, and poverty are all intimately connected. Policymakers need to consider all three social issues before enforcing legislation on any one of them. For instance, developing countries may need to use fossil fuels before they can invest in cleaner energy, and further innovation will make energy more environmentally friendly and accessible.

Access to energy is access to possibilities. Governing bodies must recognise their ethical limits but also keep in mind that the future of humanity and the planet will depend on how people respond to the intersection between energy and the environment.